Houston Research Institute Funds Health Startups for Earth and Space

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Another startup is Enterade—brought to you by the University of Florida, the institution that gave us Gatorade in the 1960s—which received $100,000 last year for its medical drink that soothes nausea suffered by astronauts due to radiation exposure. On Earth, Enterade could also help relieve the nausea experienced by patients undergoing chemotherapy.

Meanwhile, this past March, Cerebrotech Medical Systems in California received $250,000 to further development of its non-invasive portable monitor to detect changes in brain fluid levels. In a handful of severe cases, astronauts are showing elevated intra-cranial pressure, which is causing vision impairments and irreversible damage to the retina—and possible blindness.

On Earth, Donoviel says, such monitoring can help the more than two million patients who are hospitalized each year after strokes or brain trauma.

At any one time, the NSBRI is typically funding 60 active companies. Still, Donoviel says she wants to expand the institute’s reach. Since her peer review committee, composed entirely of volunteers, can vet only so many companies, the NSBRI earlier this month announced a new program called Smartcap-Accel, a spinoff from the institute’s two-year-old Space Medicine and Related Technologies Commercialization Assistance Program.

“If we partner with accelerators, they’ve already done the due diligence and also put their own money behind the startup,” Donoviel says—an endorsement that makes an application stronger.

To apply for funding through the Smartcap-Accel program, interested startups must be sponsored by their accelerators. The NSBRI is taking online applications until July 22. Donoviel is hosting a webinar today at 2 pm CST, during which interested applicants can submit questions.

Donoviel acknowledges that the accelerator model—in which startups are expected to have products ready to pitch for funding in 12 weeks—could be too fast for space medicine projects. “We may have to look at doing longer programs or having the companies going through multiple accelerators one after another until they’re ready,” she says.

The NSBRI was founded in 1997 at a time when NASA and budget-writers in Washington were seeking a better way to leverage the space agency’s resources and commercialize space medicine research. Since many of the currently funded startups have matching grants from organizations such as the National Institutes of Health and the Department of Defense, Donoviel says, “for every dollar we give them, we get 2.8 dollars back.”

The bottom line for Donoviel is that the research that the NSBRI funds for space needs has the potential to impact more than the astronaut corps. “If you can make it for space, it makes it more competitive on Earth,” Donoviel says. “That means cheaper models for healthcare on Earth.”

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